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Experience of NC water fund chief raises questions

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

The naming of a political appointee to run North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund is drawing criticism from environmentalists who say he doesn't meet the minimum legal requirements for the job.
    
Bryan Gossage began work Nov. 5 as director of the state's newly created Office of Land and Water Stewardship, which includes the clean water fund.
    
Gossage's hiring, which was not publicly announced by the agency, was first reported Monday by N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group. He will be paid $78,000 a year.
    
The taxpayer-supported fund, with a current budget of $10.4 million, buys environmentally sensitive land for conservation and supports other clean water initiatives. State law says the director must have "experience and training in conservation, protection, and management of surface water resources."
    
Gossage, 38, has a bachelor's degree in sociology and has previously worked in marketing and public relations. In May, he was named as a deputy secretary in charge of innovation support at the N.C. Commerce Department, a job that went away following a reorganization of that agency.
    
Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, said Gossage's professional resume doesn't qualify him to oversee the clean water fund.
    
"Under the statute, there are requirements," Gavin said. "He is replacing very seasoned professionals who have a lot of experience in conservation and natural resources. So it is going to be a challenge for him to live up to that."
    
However, Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman Drew Elliot said Gossage meets the legal qualifications for his new post because he served six years as a town councilman in Apex, which included oversight of municipal operations that included a water treatment plant.
    
"The statute doesn't say anything about being an expert in the field," Elliot said.
    
He added that Gossage's tenure on the Apex council included a drought in 2007, when the town was forced to implement restrictions on the use of drinking water, such as limits on washing cars and the daytime watering of lawns.
    
In 2008, Gossage campaigned unsuccessfully as a Republican for the N.C. House. His wife, Chloe Gossage, is the policy director for Republican governor Gov. Pat McCrory, making $110,000 a year.
    
Elliot said Bryan Gossage was not available for comment Tuesday.
    
Gossage's immediate predecessor was Richard Rogers, who had served as executive director of the clean water fund since 2007. He had worked at the state's environmental agency since 1994, rising through the ranks to become the assistant secretary for natural resources. Roger's was paid $130,000 to oversee the fund, which had about 10 times its current level of funding at the start of the recession in 2008.
    
Hope Taylor, executive director of the group Clean Water for North Carolina, said Gossage's hiring represents a pattern by the McCrory administration of filling key environmental posts with political appointees who either have little experience or who have previously worked for industrial polluters.
    
"This is par for the course," Taylor said. "It is not only a lack of seriousness, but outright hostility to the principles of conservation and environmental protection."

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